Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acted today to withdraw more than 1 million acres surrounding Grand Canyon National Park from hard-rock mining.
The move, which was anticipated, has been described as critical to protect the canyon's watershed from potential adverse effects of additional uranium and other hardrock mining for the next 20 years. However, it also has been condemned by politicians who maintain the moratorium hamstrings efforts to make the United States energy independent and costs "thousands" of jobs.
In announcing the secretary's decision, Interior officials noted that the moratorium "will provide adequate time for monitoring to inform future land use decisions in this treasured area, while allowing currently approved mining operations to continue as well as new operations on valid existing mining claims."
At the National Parks Conservation Association, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Craig Obey applauded the decision.
“Today, Sec. Salazar has acted to preserve the integrity and health of one of our nation’s most unique natural wonders, the Grand Canyon. By taking one million acres of land adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park off the table for new uranium mining claims, he has taken bold action to preserve for future generations the beauty and health of what is perhaps America’s most awe-inspiring landscape," said Mr. Obey.
“Secretary Salazar’s action will protect the ecological integrity of the Grand Canyon, the quality of the water of the Colorado River, and the visitors to this internationally renowned treasure," he added. "It will ensure that the estimated $687 million in revenue and more than 12,000 full-time jobs that the Grand Canyon brings to the area through tourists and other visitors will be preserved. And it will protect millions of people downstream, who rely on the Colorado River as a clean source of drinking water, from dangerous contaminants."
Quick to criticize the move was U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.
"The Obama Administration is putting politics above American jobs and American energy security by blocking mining on what is the most uranium-rich land in the United States," the congressman said in a prepared statement. "Safe and responsible mining of this land could have produced thousands of high paying, family wage mining jobs. The United States is already 90 percent dependent on foreign sources of uranium and this decision only exacerbates our foreign dependence by locking up our own clean energy resources.
“This unilateral, arbitrary decision is an extreme action that is not based on science. The Department’s own Environmental Impact Statement does not justify the withdrawal and studies have shown that uranium mining outside the park’s border can be done safely with negligible environmental impacts. We can responsibly mine while still protecting the environment. It doesn’t have to be the all or nothing approach that the administration has unfortunately decided to take."
But the secretary said it was only prudent to protect the Grand Canyon from potential impacts from mining.
“A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape,” Mr. Salazar said. “People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon. Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use. We have been entrusted to care for and protect our precious environmental and cultural resources, and we have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations.”
At the Natural Resources Defense Council, officials praised the secretary's action.
"Pointedly, the Southwest is littered with thousands of abandoned uranium mines. As an example of the scale of the problem, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent $12 million annually in an effort to just identify the number of old and abandoned mines in the Navajo Nation alone," said Bobby McEnaney, NRDC's lands policy expert. "And this program cannot not even begin to address the costs necessary to remediate the hundreds of abandoned uranium mines that the EPA is discovering, for clean-up estimates approach a billion dollars.
"Putting aside environmental considerations for a minute, the financial toll alone should be reason enough for Sec. Salazar to approve a mining moratorium – based upon the fact that taxpayers have ended up with the remediation paycheck for an industry that has deliberately circumvented its financial responsibility to cover the toll for the damage that mining inevitably creates," added Mr. McEnaney.
Interior staff noted that the Public Land Order to withdraw these acres for 20 years from new mining claims and sites under the 1872 Mining Law, subject to valid existing rights, is authorized by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. A Record of Decision was signed by the Secretary today during a ceremony held at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C.
The withdrawal does not prohibit previously approved uranium mining, new projects that could be approved on claims and sites with valid existing rights, they added. The withdrawal would allow other natural resource development in the area, including mineral leasing, geothermal leasing and mineral materials sales, to the extent consistent with the applicable land use plans. Approximately 3,200 mining claims are currently located in the withdrawal area.
“The withdrawal maintains the pace of hardrock mining, particularly uranium, near the Grand Canyon,” said U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey, “but also gives the Department a chance to monitor the impacts associated with uranium mining in this area. It preserves the ability of future decision-makers to make thoughtful decisions about managing this area of national environmental and cultural significance based on the best information available.”
During the withdrawal period, the BLM projects that up to 11 uranium mines, including four that are currently approved, could still be developed based on valid pre-existing rights – meaning the jobs supported by mining in the area would increase or remain flat as compared to the current level, according to the BLM’s analysis. By comparison, during the 1980s, nine uranium mines were developed on these lands and five were mined out. Without the withdrawal, there could be 30 uranium mines in the area over the next 20 years, including the four that are currently approved, with as many as six operating at one time, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) estimates.
The withdrawn area includes 355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on the Kaibab National Forest; 626,678 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands; and 23,993 acres of split estate – where surface lands are held by other owners while subsurface minerals are owned by the federal government. The affected lands, all in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon or Grand Canyon National Park, are located in Mohave and Coconino Counties of Northern Arizona.
“The decision made today by the Secretary will help ensure continued protection of the Grand Canyon watershed and World Heritage designated Grand Canyon National Park,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “As stewards of our national parks, it is incumbent on all of us to continue to preserve our treasured landscapes, today and for future generations.”
Today’s decision is the culmination of more than two years of evaluation during which the BLM analyzed the proposed withdrawal in an EIS prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.
Numerous cooperating agencies, tribes, counties and stakeholders were fully engaged in this process, which included an extensive public involvement period which generated more than 350,000 comments, including input from more than 90 countries. Substantive comments, including those on the economic impact discussion, were addressed in the Final EIS, released on October 27, 2011 for a final 30-day review period.